Loose Lips

10.22.15 5:15 AM ET

How Republicans Blew It on Benghazi

Even before Hillary Clinton faced off against the House Benghazi committee, Republicans had lost the narrative—because they still don’t understand Hillary Rules.

The news cycle that will follow Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Capitol Hill is entirely predictable.

Instead of getting any closer to the truths about Benghazi or Clinton’s homebrew spy-friendly email system or the obvious conflicts of interest with the Clinton Foundation, we’ll be treated to tiresome and politically ineffective theater from the Clinton cheer squad and hapless Republicans who don’t understand Hillary Rules.

The coming wave of conventional-wisdom stories reflects the GOP’s many mistakes. And her inevitable escape from legal and political jeopardy will have been aided and abetted by Capitol Hill Republicans who wouldn’t know a media strategy if it bit them on their well-fed asses.

It’s not because Chairman Trey Gowdy hasn’t done yeoman’s work trying to build a careful, non-political case of the handling of Benghazi and in Clinton’s subsequent email scandal. It’s because members of Congress not directly involved in the process ran their mouths without a plan, without a message, and without the discipline that many of us begged them to exercise.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and others got sloppy, and forgot there is no zone of latitude when it comes to Republicans vs. the Clintons. GOP members playing to either the right or left side of the bleachers gave the Clinton team the sword they needed to cut off all our heads, letting an already complicit media frame the hearings precisely as they desired.

The tragedy here is that Gowdy’s committee—with the exception of one disgruntled staffer who was fired for mishandling classified information—has been run in a by-the-book, just-the-facts manner. It hasn’t always produced the drama that breathless fundraising emails from the constellation of presidential candidates, scam PACs, and the fever swamp media promised—but that’s a compliment, not a critique.

They helped the Clinton team draw the Benghazi hearings into the most familiar battle lines in the minds of the Acela corridor’s chroniclers of Hillary. We’re in their most comfortable happy zone where Republicans are the bad, stupid party and Clinton is the embattled, beleaguered feminist icon.

It’s not as if I didn’t warn you how this was going to go. So here’s what to expect from this week’s episode of “Hillary Clinton Escapes Again”:

Well-rehearsed, media-friendly moments of genuine Clinton emotion.

The Clinton team understands television and the news ecosystem. As terrible as she is as a candidate, they know how to shape the form and structure of the coverage to come. They know what the producers on every cable show are looking for, and they’ll serve it up like Meg Ryan faking an orgasm; loud, obvious, and surprisingly intriguing.

So for a few moments the HillaryBot will simulate anger or passion or outrage for the cameras, just as she did in her infamous “at this point, what difference does it make?” moment in the prior hearings. It will be the centerpiece of every nightly news and cable show’s coverage.

On Wednesday night, she was rehearsing it, over and over, with her team. I have a vision of Bill, the master of the form, sitting in the darkness off the stage where she was prepping for this event. “Hillary, dammit. One more time. Really look like you’re mad. Think of... no, never mind. Not Monica mad... just normal mad.”

Here come the Democratic white knights.

Expect the Democrats to rend their clothes, tear their hair, and praise Clinton to the heavens. In the media equation there are three players in this drama: the evil Republicans seeking to illegitimately smear Her Majesty as part of their 25-year campaign of personal destruction; the future president shining with the light of her integrity and humanity; and her champions in the Democratic members of the Committee.

It’s a bonus for the media, two sets of heroes and one villain. Here’s how the coverage will run: “Dumb, evil Republicans make false claim about email/Benghazi. Smart, wonderful Clinton rebuts with fire and passion. Then Elijah Cummings and the rest of the cadre sweep in with accolades for her greatness and stern rebukes for the Republicans on the committee.”

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She will be rewarded for lying.

Clintons lie with facility, intent, and design. Hillary Clinton will lie at these hearings, and she will lie without a single tell in her affect or expression. The tells will come in legalisms or conditionals in the text. Watch for words like “deliberately” or “intent” or “knowingly” as she glides over criminal wrongdoing, colossally poor national security judgment, or laws-are-for-the-little-people attitude.

She’ll confess to some small error in judgment to hide larger errors in intent. She’ll admit some small ethical lapses to cover legal violations. She’ll acknowledge getting the server hosting decision wrong to cover the fact she received classified materials on it. She’ll throw Cheryl or Sidney or some other staffer under the bus to avoid having to talk about the Clinton Foundation.

In all of these, our not-terribly-diligent Hillary Press Corps will do exactly what they did at the train-wreck UN press conference: declare the issue closed and the matter resolved, no matter how patently wrong they are or how they’ll have to revise their stories after the truth comes out.

The stories are already written.

Because Republicans have so fundamentally botched the messaging on this matter (surprise!), tomorrow’s stories write themselves. I’ll lay perfectly good bitcoin that the coverage will include lines like these:

“After a day of highly politicized hearings that even Republicans admit are merely to harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, the Democratic frontrunner emerged essentially unscathed.”

“Even after months of fruitless investigations, Capitol Hill Republicans continued their ugly attacks on Hillary Clinton... and Democrats sprang to her defense.”

“Sensing victory, Clinton allies on the panel and off pointed to frank admissions by Republicans that the panel’s sole purpose was to derail her suddenly blossoming presidential campaign.”

“Hillary Clinton took on her Republican persecutors in Congress today and emerged victorious, telling members of the panel to stop their political witch hunt against her.”

The press wants closure, and theyll get it.

Short of an indictment (which from Obama’s Justice Department strikes this cynic as the remotest of possibilities) or some smoking-gun piece of evidence from the FBI’s efforts to recover the entire corpus of her emails from the servers, this hearing is the end of the line in the investigation.

Gowdy and the committee will still plug away, fighting a slow-rolling State Department and the Clinton family for every little nugget of subpoenaed and requested data, but this will largely be it for the media coverage. They want to get on with the coronation of 2016, and the coda of Clinton’s rough summer plays tomorrow.

Does any of this make Benghazi, or her email scandal, or the conflicts of interest, or her efforts to monetize the State Department for her extended entourage less important and consequential? Of course not. As a student of the Clintons for close to two decades now, I’m as exhausted and cynical about their ability to consistently escape justice as the next member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, particularly given the body of evidence often lacking in prior Clinton scandals. It’s a valuable lesson for Republicans, who almost always fail to work through a complete plan of action against the Clinton enterprise: No matter how hard you think you’re hitting them, make one mistake and it’s you on the receiving end.

This won’t decide the election. She’s still a divisive and problematic figure in a hundred ways to which the Acela media is culturally blind. She’s not seen as an honest and trustworthy person, which is certainly reflected in the public polling. Americans are increasingly distrustful of Hillary Clinton, even as she leads in Democratic primary polling. Her endless reinventions, her uncanny valley affect, her Nixonian mind-set—all are now an indelible part of her brand.

With the GOP still in the great Trump Civil War of 2015 and the hapless Joe Biden out of the game, Clinton’s campaign is having a good week. Benghazi will soon be behind them in the eyes of the press, and the email scandal will be wrapped up in a neat partisan bow. Nothing will stand in the way of Clinton’s coronation but a doddering loudmouth (odd... that obtains for both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but I digress) and the vanishingly small chance of an indictment.

Unless Gowdy pulls an extraordinary surprise from his pocket Thursday, this week will end in triumph for Clinton. And it’s all the Republicans’ fault.